Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Remembering John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin, one of the most accomplished and important historians of the African-American experience from the Founding period through the 20th century civil rights movement, passed away yesterday at the age of 94.

Professor Franklin was a true giant of his chosen profession. As a scholar, he was the first academic historian to insist in his scholarship that the American experience could not be understood without understanding the role of African-Americans in shaping our nation's history. Franklin, over the course of his sixty year career, in numerous important books and articles, painted portrait after portrait of the importance of black Americans, as individuals and as a people, in helping establish America's independence, in enduring slavery and its consequences, suffering through the false promise of Reconstruction, the battle to end Jim Crow and how, through it all, African-Americans sought nothing more than to become part of the ethnic mosaic of the United States rather than a separate entity.

The first book I read of Professor Franklin's was From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, when it was assigned to me my sophomore year in college. I don't remember the exact name of the class, maybe a 19th or 20th century American history class, but I do remember how many students were puzzled by the professor's decision to assign a book about "black" history. It made perfect sense to me, perhaps because I had grown up where and when I did, being taught music, sports, geography, authentic barbequing techniques, math and English by African-Americans. I moved freely between black and white worlds as a child -- the black world I visited on the weekends when I went to work with my father and the predominantly white world I lived in the rest of the time. Unlike many of my friends, walking into a high school or even college classroom and seeing a black instructor didn't phase me. It's not that my friends were racists or even mildly prejudicial; they simply weren't used to seeing African-Americans in positions of authority. That was simply a reflection of the social organization of the South during the early post-civil rights period. Mine was certainly a generation that inherited many of the social prejudices of their parents. Fortunately, for me, my parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of their time trying to educate my sister and I to the profoundly inhumane, cruel and barbaric qualities of racial segregation. They also walked the walk -- literally -- and not just talked the talk.

Professor Franklin knew more than anyone before him and very few after him that emphasizing African-American history was not a separationist movement or an effort to establish an academic ghetto. Rather, it was an effort, deliberate, careful and rooted in scholarship, to force white America to stop ignoring the contributions that black Americans had made to our country through their suffering and, wholely separate, their contributions to art, science, medicine, music, sport and so much else. For Professor Franklin, it was not enough for white America to "accept" black entertainers and sports figures as their imaginary African-American friends. Black Americans fought alongside of white patriots during the Revolution, contributed to the arts and sciences throughout the 19th century, made untold contributions to America's defense of freedom in two 20th century World Wars and educated an entire country, if not the world, on the power of non-violent civil disobedience to revolutionize a good-hearted but misguided country's social and political fabric. John Hope Franklin, the first African-American to chair an academic history department at an American university, was a gracious, elegant and generous man until the end. All he ever wanted was to see America make good on the promises set out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and acknowledge the contributions that African-Americans made to the United States then and now.

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